Often forgotten or lost in the amount of criticism Arsenal receive when the club is unable to, in the end, fully compete for the title, is how often injuries have plagued the side. This has often prevented Wenger’s team from reaching consistency and its full potential. Of the 23 outfield players only Campbell hasn’t spent some time injured this season.
Not even the much discussed incorporation of fitness expert Shad Forshythe can prevent injuries from taking their toll. November brought back a sense of déjà vu, the injury list continues to grow almost to the point of farce, and concerns for the club’s success in the short-term will grow amidst key absences.
Yet, this shouldn’t serve as an excuse, nor should it detract from Norwich’s overall performance. In the pre-match commentary, Norwich manager Alex Neil mentioned how Arsenal’s movement, interchanging of positions, and interplay between the lines makes them one of the most difficult Premier League sides to prepare against. So, by being solid and compact, Alex Neil aptly shut down opposing players from receiving and turning between the lines. Therefore, his main plan sought to limit the influence of Alexis, Cazorla and especially the in-form Ozil in advantageous situations in those spaces.
As shown in the photo above, the Canaries defended in a compact 4-4-2, putting little pressure on the Arsenal centre-back pairing of Koscielny-Mertesacker. They preferred to allow them time on the ball and maintain their shape, waiting in a mid-low block when not in possession. This, in turn, forced Arsenal’s build-up to go through Cazorla as opposed to Flamini. Given the injuries and circumstances, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ramsey back in the double pivot at some point. Nonetheless, if this does end up happening, it may only be out of necessity, not out of preference, from Wenger.
Because of Neil’s approach, Arsenal struggled to create chances and meaningfully break down Norwich’s defence, often passing around their narrow shape instead of finding that penetrating final ball through it. In this sense, Ozil was the match’s most important player, since his player profile meant his ability in tight spaces is what this type of encounter required.
After a comfortable opening 15 minutes from Norwich, Ozil dropped deeper, playing a larger role in build-up play in an attempt to get more involved. Arsenal were able to begin to chip away at the resolute canary tactical approach through Ozil’s deeper positioning and Monreal’s crossing on the left. After creating two chances in that manner, Ruddy made things easier for the gunners with an errant pass, leading to Ozil’s opener. While Arsenal were able to exploit this mistake, the goal was a direct result of a better spell from the gunners, through several shots, crosses and half chances.
Leaving their defensive shape, Norwich pushed on right before the end of the half, with Brady and Hoolahan especially active. In fact, half of the goals Arsenal have conceded this season have been in the 15 minutes before half-time. Grabban easily slotted the equaliser after Mertesacker and Gabriel, who had replaced an injured Koscielny, had failed to pick up on his positioning.
The second half began following a similar pattern, as shown in the photo below. Note the lack of players in central spaces, a testament to how Neil’s plan and Norwich’s defending forced Arsenal out wide. And yet eventually Norwich took a more proactive approach, sensing that injuries, fatigue, frustration and conditions were reasons enough to confidently aim for an unlikely victory.
Substitute Campbell and the ineffective Giroud were largely bystanders, as the match became a box to box affair in its dying minutes. Gabriel, despite his positioning for Grabban’s goal, did well and was kept very busy, having to grow into the game and effectively deal with the opposing side’s frequent crossing towards the match’s latter stages.
In all, the focus will be on Arsenal, on their injuries, and whether their squad is filled with injury prone players or if their difficulties are just the result of bad luck. The creeping unease once again wipes away the short-lived and cautious optimism that victory over Manchester United and Bayern Munich had provided earlier in the season.
As for Norwich, the young manager’s plan succeeded, his side having defended resolutely in a well-organised and drilled fashion. Their successful reading of the game came down to the precise moments in which they decided to exit their shape and attack through individual skill. Still, Norwich City have lost 5 of their last 7 matches. Meanwhile, Arsenal are looking towards survival.
While their current positions may be less dire than they initially may seem, with Norwich 3 points above relegation and Arsenal only 2 points behind league leaders Manchester City, pressure is beginning to mount looking forward.
Neither side has yet to take flight.